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Kangaroo Squadron: American Courage in the Darkest Days of World War II

Bruce Gamble. Da Capo, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-306-90312-0

Military historian Gamble (Target Rabaul) delivers an inspiring and impeccably researched tale of the Australia-based 38th Reconnaissance Squadron’s air combat against the Japanese from December 1941 through September 1942. Unlike the later bombing campaigns, these early actions were small and somewhat ad hoc, but they were strategically vital, Gamble writes. The Kangaroo Squadron faced unusually steep challenges; in addition to bad weather, extremely challenging over-ocean navigation, and flight distances that stressed their planes’ fuel endurance, no ground personnel were available for two months, so the crews did all the maintenance and repairs on their B-17E bombers in addition to flying eight- to 12-hour-long missions. Nevertheless, they contributed to some of the major actions of the war: they flew into the middle of the attack on Pearl Harbor; carried out several daring missions to the Philippines, including the rescue of General MacArthur and his family; and played an important role in U.S. victories at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the battle for Guadalcanal. Both the air war expert and the general reader will enjoy and learn something from this well-crafted work. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Drawing Fire: A Pawnee, Artist, and Thunderbird in World War II

Brummett Echohawk, with Mark R. Ellenbarger. Univ. Press of Kansas, $29.95 (280p) ISBN 978-0-7006-2703-5

Bronze Star recipient Echohawk narrates key episodes of his time with the 45th U.S. Infantry Division (“the Rock of Anzio”) in Sicily and Italy, with reproduced sketches and notes originating from the field. This honest and beautiful memoir begins with the division’s botched landing in Anzio and focuses on days of close combat and frequent confusion familiar to so many GIs in the European theater. Echohawk’s detailed drawings capturing the humanity, fear, and relentless bravery of his fellow division members on spare paper were noticed first by his superior officers, who assigned him to gather intelligence, and then by a visiting entertainer, who helped him get them published in international newspapers, leading to his postwar career as an artist. The division, nicknamed the Thunderbirds, included numerous members of various Native American tribes, who used traditional skills to track and hide; Echohawk movingly recalls the language and warrior traditions he and his fellow Native soldiers followed—and, in one episode, humorously recalls fake ones they invented to intimidate insolent German captives. This excellent and fascinating account is a unique contribution to the literature of WWII. Illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Airborne in 1943: The Daring Allied Air Campaign over the North Sea

Kevin Wilson. Pegasus, $29.95 (480p) ISBN 978-1-68177-880-8

In this meticulously researched work, British journalist Wilson (Blood and Fears) lays out an exacting reconstruction of the aerial campaign of 1943, in which the Allies took “war home to the enemy as never before in the history of Germany or the world.” Wilson doesn’t skimp on detail in this yearlong narrative of the missions, triumphs, failures, and losses that made up the Allied assault on Germany’s cities, in a bold reversal of the earlier events of WWII. Precisely detailed military actions during such campaign milestones as the Battle of the Ruhr and the Battle of Berlin are interspersed with personal recollections (of such participants as rear gunner Sgt. Albert Bracegirdle, wireless operator Pilot Officer Dennis Bateman, and bomb aimer Sgt. Len Bradfield) to create a vivid, complex picture of this phase of the war, with an eye toward remembering those involved as increasingly unappreciated heroes. This is a solidly written, engaging military history. Agent: Jessica Purdue, Orion. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Tiber: Eternal River of Rome

Bruce Ware Allen. ForeEdge, $35 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5126-0037-7

Allen (The Great Siege of Malta) offers readers a miscellanea of anecdotes and sketches related to the Tiber in Rome, arranged in a generally chronological order. Emperors, popes, and other nobility—both secular and clerical—rub elbows with more common folk in these pages. Some themes feature prominently, such as descriptions of military action and recurrences of the Roman mob, last seen in 1944, tossing into the river the Fascist prison warden Donato Carretta. Other executions, suicides, and deaths by misadventure are included, as are floods and vagaries of the river, and somewhat random tidbits on ancient sewers, dragons, and the Renaissance-era occupation of fishing out firewood as it floated by. Bridges that span the river make several appearances, as do things hidden by its depths, ranging from the apocryphal story that the river’s bottom was lined with bronze sheeting to assorted sunken treasures including statues and a lost train. Alas, “the river... is now cut off from easy access, and largely from view.” With this amusing and delightful compendium of historical Tiber trivia, Allen has given readers a view of the river after all. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny

Edward J. Watts. Basic, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-0-465-09381-6

Watts (The Final Pagan Generation) outlines the end of the Roman republic to show “how republics built on Rome’s model might respond to particular stresses,” in this quick and clear, if at times dry, primer. Watts begins by depicting Rome’s journey to the status equivalent of a modern world power, by defeating Greek king Pyrrhus in 280 BCE, taking on Carthage in the Punic Wars, and achieving a final victory over Hannibal’s Carthage in 202 BCE. The book moves briskly through the evolution of the republic’s democracy in subsequent decades, including an early example of demagogic populism in the election and reign of Tiberius. The book ends with a deep analysis of Caesar’s ascent to autocratic power, his murder, and the rise of Emperor Augustus in 27 BCE. Readers will find many parallels to today’s fraught political environment: the powerful influence of money in politics, a “delegitimized establishment,” and “the emergence of a personality-driven, populist politicking.” Watts ably and accessibly—if in a somewhat formal, scholarly style—covers a lot of ground in a manner accessible to all readers, including those with little knowledge of Roman history. This well-crafted analysis makes clear the subject matter’s relevance to contemporary political conversations. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Story of Greece and Rome

Tony Spawforth. Yale Univ, $30 (392p) ISBN 978-0-300-21711-7

This excellent survey by British historian Spawforth (Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution) spans the rise and fall of the Greco-Roman world, from the Aegean city-states that became Greece to the final days of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, which set the stage for current Western civilization. Through an interdisciplinary approach that includes history, anthropology, and literature, Spawforth traces the growth of Rome from a small part of the Italian peninsula to the multiethnic “Roman Peace” that extended from Hadrian’s Wall in the British Isles to what is now modern Turkey, with much cultural and religious detail along the way. For example, he makes clear how receptive both Greek and Roman civilizations were to foreign (i.e., “barbarian”) influences from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Carthage. In addition to straightforward historical narrative, Spawforth makes quite unexpected but relevant connections; in the first pages of a chapter about early Christianity, he refers—among other things—to a colleague’s obscure literary theory, Jonathan Haidt’s 21st-century research on moral psychology, a 1912 Japanese passage explaining emperor worship, and Catholics being blamed for the 1666 Great Fire of London. This conversational yet erudite history is a treat. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Eternal City: The History of Rome

Ferdinand Addis. Pegasus, $29.95 (608p) ISBN 978-1-68177-542-5

Filmmaker and journalist Addis breathes new life into nearly 3,000 years of tumultuous Roman history, citing the elusive nature of Rome’s historical meaning as the impetus for this sweeping chronicle. Bookending his account with the myth of Romulus and the fantastical cinema of Federico Fellini, Addis delves into significant Roman moments and figures: the Second Punic War with Hannibal’s Carthage, Julius Caesar’s assassination, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the crowning of Charlemagne, the corrupt popes of the Theophylact and Borgia families, Petrarch, Michelangelo, Garibaldi’s wars to reunify Italy, and fascism’s rise under Mussolini. Addis’s singular accomplishment, however, is filling in the gaps between these events with novelistic passages on architecture, religious practices, poetry, and the love lives of some of Rome’s most notorious libertines. The tale of Rome’s many incarnations—republic, empire, heart of the warring Christian kingdoms of the Middle Ages, the capital of a modern unified Italy—is one of splendor and death, impressively told with passion, analytical expertise, and wit. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Churchill: Walking with Destiny

Andrew Roberts. Viking, $40 (1,088p) ISBN 978-1-101-98099-6

Roberts (Napoleon: A Life) serves up an extraordinary biography of Winston Churchill. A resolutely pro-British empire “child of the Victorian era” who was emotionally neglected by his aristocratic father and frivolous American-raised mother, Churchill by his 20s had already reported from, fought in, and sometimes written books about imperial struggles in such places as Cuba, Sudan, India, and South Africa. He leveraged fame due to an escape from Boer captivity to win an election to British parliament in 1900 at age 25. As first lord of the admiralty during WWI, he was scapegoated for the military fiasco of Gallipoli in 1915 and cast into the political wilderness, which strengthened his nonconformist, independent nature, Roberts writes, helping him when he became prime minister in 1940. Roberts captures Churchill’s close working relationship with FDR (“the greatest American friend we have ever known”), his distrust of his chiefs of staff, and his excessive faith in Stalin’s promises in 1945. He also captures the man, dispelling the myth that Churchill was prone to depression and revealing his deep love for his wife, Clementine; his egotism, his wit, his loyalty to friends, his penchant sometimes for “selfishness, insensitivity, and ruthlessness”; and his “sybaritic” love of good drink and cigars. This biography is exhaustively researched, beautifully written and paced, deeply admiring but not hagiographic, and empathic and balanced in its judgments—a magnificent achievement. Agent: Georgina Capel, Georgina Capel Assoc. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss

Jessica Wilbanks. Beacon, $26.95 ISBN 978-0-8070-9223-1

Wilbanks, winner of a Pushcart Prize for essay writing, debuts with the captivating story of how she turned away from God. She eloquently explores her long journey from being a Pentecostal Christian who spoke in tongues to being an atheist. Wilbanks tells of her childhood growing up in a dilapidated farmhouse in Maryland where she would mark up her Precious Moments Bible with pink highlighter. Throughout college she slowly begins to recognize the “metallic coil of anxiety buried deep in my belly” that came from the questioning of her religious upbringing. As a graduate student, having rejected her childhood faith but curious to know its roots, Wilbanks researched the Pentecostal movement. She includes portraits of such people as William Seymour, a poor man living on Azusa Street in California, and wealthy Enoch Adeboye from Nigeria, who changed her thinking about Pentecostalism, which had become derisive after her conversion to atheism. As Wilbanks learned more about her childhood religion, she visited Africa and was appalled that clergy and laity punishes children as witches: “You had to look closely to see the scars.” Whether writing of these scars, her dad’s rusty pickup trucks, or massive Pentecostal revivals in Lagos, Wilbanks captures the scene beautifully. Wilbanks’s slow deconstruction of her family-given religiosity is an evocative inversion of the average spiritual journey. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World

John O’Donohue. Convergent, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-0-525-57528-3

This marvelous posthumous collection from Irish poet-philosopher O’Donohue (Anam Cara) comes as an unexpected gift for his fans. These originally spoken essays, talks from Irish National Radio selected by radio broadcaster John Quinn, revive O’Donohue’s unique perspective. O’Donohue was a persuasive popularizer of contemporary Celtic spirituality with a gift for hybridizing his roots in the Irish landscape with more rarified elements of German idealism—from the mysticism of Meister Eckhart to the philosophy of Hegel. His topics, including landscape, aging, and memory, are hardly original, but O’Donohue brings lyrical novelty to his reflections (“Memory, as a kingdom, is full of the ruins of presence”). Some selections are deeper and better than others, underscoring the absence of an author who might better polish his words for print. Particularly haunting in their suggestiveness and brevity are O’Donohue’s short meditations on death, given his own premature death at age 52 in 2008. O’Donohue’s work remains a rich banquet for those interested in spirituality and his particular expression of contemporary Celtic mysticism. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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